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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.

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Pre-Angellism

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

[by Lynn Rees]
Angellism before Angell, at the dawn of the French Revolution:

French military might strode defiantly across the land, contemptuous of the political calculus with which other governments anxiously weighed enmities and alliances, weakening the forces of war and binding the raw element of conflict in diplomatic bonds. To their own and everyone else’s surprise, the French learned that a state’s natural power and a great simple cause were far stronger than the artificial structure of international relations by which other states were ruled.

Such a fundamental transformation was least of all expected at a time when many believed that highly developed state finances and standing armies had led to a level of civilization at which the strength of the people was excluded from public affairs. Everything was reduced to a a few strands—treasury, credit, army—which the cabinet held in its hands…

Carl von Clausewitz,
“Observations on Prussia” (c. early 1820s),
Historical and Political Writings
Edited and translated by Peter Paret and David Moran 

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In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

Friday, December 13th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.

Observations

Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.

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Now, about taklif, and about parawar?

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- two learnings about Hezbollah, in process and with one question each ]
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The trouble with this internet thing is that it offers nonstop opportunities for learning.

I hope my readers here at Zenpundit know by now that I’m an amateur (a lover) of the topics that I write about, learning as I go. I have long thought fard ‘ayn or individual obligation was the key phrase in religious recruitment to the jihad, conveying as it does divine sanction for the deeds properly committed under that license. I believe I first encountered the phrase in the context of Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj and his book, The Neglected Duty. It’s my (strictly amateur) hunch that the neglected (pun intended) Faraj should be the object of as much of our study as the far better known Sayyid Qutb.

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Just yesterday Phillip Smyth posted an extended piece on the Brown Moses blog, Hizballah Executing Syrian Prisoners? – Analyzing the Video, which in turn introduced me to the concept of taklif al-sharii. The key paras read:

In a June USA Today article which covered Hizballah’s involvement in Syria, a Hizballah fighter noted, “Everyone who is sent to fight in Syria has received a ‘Taklif Sharii’”. USA Today added the taklif sharii is “a religious command that means he will go to heaven if killed.” Nevertheless, the taklif sharii is more than just a religious edict which guarantees a martyred fighter’s spot in heavenly paradise. It is a religious obligation put forth by a cleric and must be followed. In fact, it is a form of religious ruling which underpins the Khomeinist ideology guiding Iran, Hizballah, and all of the main Iraqi Shia organizations sending militiamen to Syria.

Augustus Richard Norton noted that Hizballah’s adherence to taklif sharii is a theological legal ruling, “as though commanded by Allah”. According to Mohammed Sherri, an Al-Manar (Hizballah’s official TV channel) commentator, “once a taklif is issued, violating it is similar to any sin, like murder or adultery, or not praying or fasting.” In traditional Shi’ism, the taklif sharii was rarely issued and normally did not deal with political issues. The concept was actually revived as an important Shia idea by the father of Iran’s Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and as an important support for his form of clerical rule, Wilayat al-Faqih (in Persian it’s known as Velayat e-Faqih). In effect, the issuing of a taklif sharii by a high ranking Shia cleric, in this case Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—The “Spiritual leader” of Hizballah and the other Iraqi Shia groups, is a direct order coming from Allah.

So — here are my amateur — still learning — questions: does taklif sharii serve the same function among Shia jihadists as fard ‘ayn does among Sunnis? Are both terms used in both communities? The parallel between the two terms, and the differences between the kinds of authorities who control Sunni and Shiite discourses in matters such as these, would make for an interesting exploration I think.

Okay, that’s the “About taklif” section of this post.

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As you might imagine, though, Smyth’s post set me reading Augustus Richard Norton‘s piece, and there I discovered another interesting snippet, on another topic entirely:

From the Israeli withdrawal of May 2000 until the eruption of war in July 2006, there was aggressive patrolling, heated rhetoric and periodic episodes of violence by both sides. Most of the armed attacks were in the disputed Shebaa farms. By historical standards, however, this was a relatively quiet period. In general, clashes respected “rules of the game”, which had been codified in writing in 1996 and specified that Israel would not attack civilians in Lebanon and Hezbollah would not attack Israel. As Daniel Sobelman notes, the rules were so well established that officials were sometimes quoted as saying that such and such skirmish was ‘‘within the rules’’.

The Sobelman reference points us to:

Sobelman, D. New Rules of the Game: Israel and Hizballah after the Withdrawal from Lebanon. Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, 2004, pp. 67–82.

Okay, here’s second my question, the one about “parawar”. What’s the Clausewitzian term for something of this kind, far beyond politics, “within the rules” yet still not quite war — parawar? The duel comes to mind, too.

So: is there a word for such things?

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For joy and sorrow: DoubleQuotes in the Wild

Friday, September 6th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- without access to joy, how shall we carry the burdens of despair? ]
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via Bill Murray likes

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DoubleQuotes are juxtapositions that have a powerful impact. Our minds and hearts are drawn naturally to seeing parallels and contradictions, making comparisons between ideas and creative leaps from one idea to another, and since this is a very basic human cognitive ability, I’ve developed my own DoubleQuotes format for presenting striking juxtapositions, and use it frequently in my posts here at Zenpundit. But I also collect strong examples of such juxtapositions when others make them, and call them DoubleQuotes in the Wild.

Today, I’d like to double up on my wild DoubleQuotes, and having offered you Jimi Hendrix (graffito juxtaposed with tree, above) to bring you joy, now offer you the poignant example from a Serbian Orthodox monk (Aleppo, Syria, then and now, below) to bring you sorrow:

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Music, munitions — we may think them unequal combatants, yet as von Clausewitz puts it:

One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.

– or in somewhat more recent terms, as Michael Herr noted in his book Dispatches:

Whenever one of us came back from an R&R we’d bring records, sounds were as precious as water: Hendrix, the Airplane, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, all the things that hadn’t even started when we’d left the States.

sounds … as precious as water

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